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I originally wrote this post for abuse advocate Ashley Easter and you can find it on her blog. This post is long (5,500 words!) and that’s because I try to go beyond the basics. It’s aimed to help people work out what good consent might look like in their sex life together. Because when I first started having sex, I didn’t have much of a clue.
To this day, my husband and I are still unsure if some of our early sexual encounters with each other were consensual. Seriously. Make no mistake, we have a mutually fun and consensual sex life now and I believe we have loved each other deeply for as long as we’ve been sexually active with each other. But we didn’t always understand consent. Or sex. And I used to have some pretty messed up ideas about my place in the relationship.
How we got into that situation and how we got out of it are both stories for another time (though I have written about our experience of sex therapy as a Christian couple). Right now, I want to tell you about how we’ve come to understand consent.
Contents as follows:
- What is sex? Responsibility and legality – why we talk about consent in the first placeConsent as faithfulness: some essential points
- Giving and receiving consentSex brakes and sex accelerators“I want YOU to LIFT MY sex BRAKES by …”
- Consent that isn’t good, and how to withdraw consentWhen you shouldn’t accept someone’s consentWithdrawing consent
What is sex?
Half the battle when it comes to understanding consent, is actually understanding what sex is and what it’s for. Whether you’re in a healthy or unhealthy relationship, whether a sexual act is consensual or non-consensual, one thing will always be true:
Sexual intercourse is an expression of relationship.
What that expression looks like and what it says will both be shaped by each person’s identity, their history and their context. No other expression of relationship is quite like sex or has the same strange potential for both good and harm. But it can be a powerful, profound and fun way for you and another person to grow in relationship with each other.
By “grow” I mean become more creative, more authentically expressive, more playful. We might think of play as being something for children, but it’s possibly the most important way in which we learn and express ourselves. I dare say, our need for play is why we couldn’t live without the arts, sports, inventiveness or discovery.
And sex is play.
I’m starting here because if someone thinks of sex as some kind of moral exercise or medical procedure, then they’re less likely to look for enthusiastic consent. Or if they think of it as a duty, then they’re more likely to think of it as something owed and paid, rather than shared.
But if sex is creative self-expression through which people can grow in relationship with each other, if sex is itself play, then it might be steered, but it can’t be forced. The people who know that, know that consent matters.
Of course, there are some obvious things that stop a person from growing – like being lied to, cheated on, or exploited. In broad terms, I think of abuse as something that destroys play. Abuse and non-consent aren’t quite the same thing, but where you find one, you usually find the other.
Responsibility and legality – why we talk about consent in the first place
There are some circumstances when the law ignores consent. Some sexual acts are illegal because of the identities of the parties involved and the relationship between them. Other sexual acts are illegal because of how a person’s body would be treated in them. There are also other categories where sexual acts are considered legal or illegal purely because of the context in which they happen. I’m not saying all of these laws are good, but it’s worth being aware of the wider context. I’ll come back to some of this later.
Meanwhile, the rest of the time, consent for sex is typically used as a measure of responsibility and legality when it comes to sexual acts.
It is generally accepted that when consent is actively withheld by one person and knowingly overridden by another, that an unlawful act has occurred.
Some people argue that with consent it shouldn’t just be that “no means no”. Rather, it should also be “only yes can mean yes”. By this standard, legality and responsibility would be determined by whether consent was actively given. So, for example, it would make it illegal to have sex with someone after they gave what you could call a “passive no”, such as a freeze response.
If it were up to me though, I’d raise the bar even higher. You see, I don’t think responsibility should just be tied to the person giving or withholding consent. I think it should also be linked to the person accepting consent. This would put a greater onus of responsibility on, for example, the person with more life experience or sexual experience. To take another common scenario, the question would no longer be just about whether a woman was irresponsible to get drunk before having sex, it would also be about whether a man was irresponsible to accept her consent while she was drunk.
Of course, this standard would make matters much more complicated.
But then, maybe it should.
You see, although consent gets used as a measure for responsibility and legality, the substance of consent isn’t really about either of these. If could distil into the word “consent” everything that I want to mean by it, then I’d say honouring the bounds of a person’s consent is a form of faithfulness, and the giving and accepting of consent is a form of wisdom.
And as I write about consent, it’s that kind of consent that I’m trying to describe and encourage.
Consent as faithfulness: some essential points
It is not helpful to talk about consent for sex before considering whether consent was given for the relationship in the first place.
And there are some situations where people can’t consent to the relationship, or even if they can, it’s not likely to be a relationship where both people will be enabled to grow. For the avoidance of doubt, these include (1) incest, (2) situations where one person is too young or too immature (for example, because of a learning difficulty) to give informed consent, and (3) situations with substantial power imbalance at the start. These situations are not always illegal. Some countries don’t have an age of consent; instead, being married is sufficient. People in positions of power (e.g. a US president) might have a casual sexual relationship with someone who has far less power (e.g. an intern). Though these acts were legal, I believe both fall outside the meaning of faithfulness.
Once the relationship is established, disagreements about consent often come down to disagreements about how people should relate within a sexual relationship. If people aren’t considered equals in the relationship, then that has implications for what level of consent is considered acceptable for one person to express themselves sexually to another. This is why things that normalise inequality also normalise non-consent.
If one person’s body is deemed more important than the other’s, that has implications too. Bodies are important and it’s a big thing for something to enter a person’s body. That means it’s hugely important for a person to be able to decide what does and doesn’t enter their body – whether they’re eating and drinking, getting their blood tested or having their ears pierced.
Or having penetrative sex of any kind.
Always, always, always get active consent for penetrative sex.
To do anything other than this falls outside the meaning of faithfulness. Yes, if someone is in a serious accident, faithfulness might mean injecting drugs and blood into their body without their active consent. But sex is not a medical intervention. It’s not a moral duty, it’s not a proving ground and it’s not a means of status. It is play. There is simply no excuse, ever, for not getting active consent to penetrate a person’s body during sex. End. of. story.
Consent as wisdom: some essential points
Sometimes lack of wisdom is morally reprehensible. Sometimes it’s just a mistake.
The thing to recognise about sex is that it’s a context where people are vulnerable; mistakes here have the potential to cause lifelong harm and regret. That said, everyone makes them. This means when we talk about consent in practical terms, we’re not talking about how to completely remove the risk of a mistake. We’re talking about how to remove the risk of life-changing and/or irresponsible mistake.
Here, I have to talk about two things that you’ve probably heard about before, but are too important not to mention: pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).
Everyone needs to accept responsibility for the possibility of a pregnancy – whether you’re using contraception or not. What are you each going to do if there is a pregnancy? What happens if one of you would want an abortion, but the other wouldn’t? Is one of you having sex with pregnancy as the primary aim? What will you do if it doesn’t work? You both need to be on the same page about how you’ll react in either outcome.
Everyone has a responsibility to know what infections they are carrying. Having sex without disclosing an STI when you know you have one is a consent violation. Be aware, when you get tested for STIs, you don’t get tested for anything and you can carry infections without showing symptoms. This means that even if your tests turned up negative, lying about your sexual history is a consent violation.
Have a two-way conversation about both these issues before you have sex. Your body and your future are not worth risking for someone you can’t trust to have an honest conversation with. And if you don’t want to disclose your sexual history or medical conditions because you’re afraid your partner will shame you for it, then ask yourself if they’re worth being with anyway.
Seriously, a relationship where one person holds their moral or physical superiority over the other, is a relationship without consent.
On the flip side, if you’re willing to accept each other as you are and abide during each other’s pain, if you nurture each other’s creativity and enjoy each other’s sense of humour, if you share each other’s world but don’t become their world, feeling humbled and privileged to know each other, then you will value consent. Because you’ll know that it is in each other’s free choices that you can find both the assurance of faithfulness and the joy of surprise.
That’s what makes sex great.
Giving and receiving consent
My husband’s and my relationship is one where we both grow through and with each other. That isn’t true because we are married; rather, we are married because this is true (amongst other reasons). I am open to the possibility that there are contexts outside of marriage where sexual expression can be mutually edifying in the long term. However, the thing I want to make clear for this post is that when I write about sexual consent, I’m writing about the context I know.
There are some things that characterise my husband’s and my relationship and I’m generally going to assume these as I discuss consent. At a high level, our relationship was in a good place when we first considered being sexually involved with each other. We are also people who can appreciate, enjoy and work well with each other. And, importantly, we always wanted to pleasure each other. At a more detailed level, our sex together is private, exclusive (monogamous), adult (not teenage), and part of a long-term relationship.
Consent will have more complexities in other contexts.
Sex brakes and sex accelerators
Possibly the best book I have ever read on sex is “Come As You Are” by Emily Nagoski. She discusses what she calls a “dual control” model for sexual arousal – it’s the idea that everyone has sex accelerators and sex brakes. The book has a wealth of wisdom which I can’t go into here, but the idea of accelerators and brakes is a handy way to break down what good consent looks like. So I’m going to do that.
“I want YOU to LIFT MY sex BRAKES by …”
People have limits and turn offs. Respect both.
Things in this category are the pre-requisites for sex – they might be things that must be done, but more often they’ll be things that must not be done.
Don’t assume. Often people have expectations about what goes into this category without saying. The problem comes when people have different expectations about what is “obvious” or not, so it’s worth talking about. There is no harm if you talk about it and find you agree. There is much potential for harm if you don’t talk about it and discover by accident.
No one has no limits. If someone says there is nothing you could do that would hit their sex-brakes, that means their consent is uninformed and accepting their consent is downright irresponsible. So, recognise that they’ve never really thought about it. Get them thinking. And take this as a big flag for you to be explicit about the kinds of things you’d like to do.
Be clear about importance. If you ask a question related to your limits, explain why you’re asking it – particularly if the answer is important to you. And if you get asked what seems like a very ordinary question, ask why the other person is asking it.
Does anything else need the ‘active consent every time’ label? There may be other things which aren’t off-limits, but – like penetrative sex – need active consent each and every time. That’s OK and doesn’t need to be justified. Just respected.
Presumed consent? Consent to touch someone’s genitals (through clothing or otherwise) cannot be presumed at first. However, in time, you may find that active consent isn’t necessary for this and other actions. The thing about presumed consent is that it needs to be learned within the relationship and it will usually be context dependent. An action might be fine in private, but not in public. Or when you’re warm, but not when you’re cold. Or when you’re younger, but not when you’re older. That’s fine. The point is to keep yourself aware of contexts and to recognise when they change.
Discuss. Learn. Confirm.
“I want YOU to hit MY sex accelerators by …”
It’s good to communicate what you’d like the other person to do to turn you on! Don’t be shy and don’t wait for the ‘magic to happen’. What makes you spark needs to be learned and your partner can’t learn without you communicating. That said, there are also pitfalls.
When I last went to the hairdressers to have four inches cut off, the stylist didn’t take me at my word. She’d had customers before who’d asked for inches and inches of hair to be cut off, only to then say they didn’t like what she’d done. It wasn’t a nice experience for them or for her as a stylist, so she started with me by taking a bit off, and then took a bit more. It can be helpful to think of sex in this way too.
Be risk aware. Hairdressers say they can always cut more off, but they can’t add it back. Similarly, discuss the risks of what you’re doing before you do it. If you’re unsure of the risk, each of you can do your research beforehand. Your own research. Then discuss together what you found out and go from there.
Give continuous active consent. Take time to find out what you like, don’t dive straight into something new and unfamiliar. I’ve known people laugh at this idea saying it will “kill the mood”, but I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, it barely takes a few seconds to exchange “You still good?” and “Yes.” For another, when you feed each other encouragement during sex, that what they’re doing is good, then this builds confidence and trust – and makes for more enjoyable sex.
Get continuous consent from your partner. They might feel out of their depth and afraid of harming you or disappointing you (like the stylist who did my hair). Or they might find themselves really turned off. You need to be willing to respect their choice if they want to stop. They have to consent too.
It’s never the same way twice. Hair (particularly women’s hair it seems) never behaves exactly the same way twice. Same goes for your sexual response. It’s not something you can completely control and neither can your partner. So don’t blame your partner if they push your sex accelerators but don’t get the result you were quite after. Sure, it won’t kill the mood to nudge them in the right direction, but if things don’t work as amazingly as they might, don’t let that bother you. There’s always next time.
You can only be you. Everybody’s hair is different; some styles will work on other people that won’t do you many favours and a hairdresser can only work with your hair. Similarly, it’s important to accept and understand your own sexual responses, and help your partner work with how and who you are. Otherwise, you can be setting your partner up to fail. (Emily Nagoski’s book “Come As You Are” can help with understanding your body.)
“I want to hit YOUR sex accelerators by …”
Consent has no room for ego.
Enthusiastic consent. Look for this. I mean really. If your partner isn’t excited by the idea, you’re going to have a much harder time turning them on. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Again, if enthusiastic consent isn’t there at the start, continuous active consent is essential.
Your partner is not obliged to enjoy what you do. Instead, you are required to stop if they withdraw consent and you are required to be OK with that if they do.
Your partner’s pleasure belongs to them. Pleasure them so that they can enjoy it, not so that you can display your sexual prowess.
Lift your partner up, don’t belittle them. Maybe you are the more experienced partner, but the second you make sex a test that they have to pass before they’re your equal, you’ve gone wrong. Enable them, don’t patronise them.
Informed consent. Make sure the other person has a clear idea of what you want to do. They need to be confident you’re not going to hit on their brakes and if you’re trying something new, get continuous active consent. It’s like the hairdresser analogy above, except this time the hairdresser is coming up with the ideas.
You don’t need surprises to build anticipation. People have very distinctive tastes when it comes to surprises, so you need to get to know someone well before you can judge whether any surprise you’re planning is something they’ll actually appreciate. Wanting to surprise someone is no excuse for uninformed consent and even with a fully-informed partner it’s quite possible to build anticipation.
“I want to hit MY sex accelerators by…”
Now this is an interesting category.
Are you after something that’s all about you? Or are you after something that’s about both of you, but where you take a more active role and your partner takes a more passive role? Are you wanting to take pleasure from your partner or receive it from them while they’re being passive?
Passivity isn’t necessarily a problem. So you want to do something to or with your partner that’s going to get your accelerators going. It might hit their accelerators too – in which case, great. If it doesn’t, it’s important to have balance within the relationship as a whole, but I don’t believe individual sexual activities always have to be pleasurable for both people at the same time. Just make sure you get consent, you’re not pushing their limits and you’re not hitting their brakes.
Active consent has to be a free choice. So you really, really want to do this. That doesn’t give you a licence to manipulate your partner into agreeing. Don’t guilt them. Don’t pretend it’s for their benefit when it’s not. Don’t ask them when their head is all in confusion – whether that’s because of alcohol, or stress or anything else. They need to be free to refuse.
Sex is not a shortcut to self-acceptance. Sex is a way for you to grow in relationship with another person. That might (and probably should) result in you growing as an individual person, and if it does you’ll probably find a greater sense of self-fulfilment. Great! But. Don’t use sex with someone else as a way of finding fulfilment. It won’t work and those who try tend to throw consent out of the window. Don’t be that person.
What if my partner pushes my brakes and my accelerators at the same time?
Then that can be a very unsettling experience. Take some time out to make sense of it.
The first thing to be really clear on here is whether your partner is doing this deliberately. Because if they are purposefully putting your bodily responses into confusion, then that’s a whopper of a consent violation. (Bodies are important, remember.)
It is possible, even common, to experience conflicting messages when it comes to your body’s sexual function. What I’d say is that if you are frequently confused by your body’s messaging (and you won’t be the only one), you might want to consider getting professional help. If that’s not an option (and even if it is) you could do worse than to read “Come As You Are”, by Emily Nagoski. She talks about this a lot.
This brings us onto the last section: consent that might look good but isn’t, and withdrawing consent.
Consent that isn’t good, and how to withdraw consent
If you’ve read through the points I’ve made about how to give good consent, you’ll probably notice a pattern: good consent tends to be active and informed and enthusiastic.
But there are some times when a person’s consent should be refused even if it is active, informed and enthusiastic and even if good consent for the relationship was given. Here are some of them.
When you shouldn’t accept someone’s consent
When you’re doing something with risk of significant harm. There are complex questions to be raised about sanity and legality – and I don’t have either the time or the expertise to go into them. Some people say that if a person wants to receive any pain during sex, then that indicates lack of mental health. I don’t agree with this statement. But. I do believe sex is about creative self-expression. I can’t reconcile creativity with actions that permanently, significantly reduce a person’s ability to self-express, or include the risk of death. In the UK, we have a crime called “grievous bodily harm” (GBH). I’m not sure where the line is between a pinch and GBH that means a sex act becomes not OK, but I know there is one and I know what I personally am and am not willing to consent to. (You can read the definition of GBH here, search for the word “jaw”.)
When you’re violating someone else’s consent. Even if they’re not present. That includes cheating. Consent for the relationship probably wasn’t good in these circumstances, but I’ve not mentioned cheating so far and it is important, so I’m mentioning it here.
When you’re doing something illegal. Probably. There are some pretty awful things that are rightly illegal in the UK and have no place in sex. However, some countries outlaw practices which others say are human rights. And some countries legalise practices which are, frankly, horrific. So legality can be a complex issue. What I would say though is that if a sexual act is illegal, and a person doesn’t know it, then their consent is not informed.
When the person is ‘redlining’ in the wake of trauma. It is well-documented that some women become highly sexually active (redline) as their way of processing a sexually traumatic experience. “Come As You Are” talks about this. Needless to say, women in this situation are very vulnerable and are often subjected to further abuse and victim blaming. If you meet someone like this, don’t try to be their sexual saviour. Be their friend.
When one person is manipulating the other. Part of the dark art of coercion is to turn somebody’s ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. This can be done very subtly. There is plenty out there about what coercion looks like and the various tactics people use to control others. Read up on this. If you want a place to start, I suggest the Power and Control Wheel which is derived from research into domestic abuse. It’s pretty blunt, but then this stuff happens with alarming frequency. If you want to get a feel for some subtler tactics, where someone might be enthusiastic even though they’re being manipulated, you could also read a post on my blog that looks at grooming in Fifty Shades of Grey.
When consent is withdrawn. Active, enthusiastic and informed consent doesn’t always last. This is what we’ll discuss next.
Consent can be withdrawn at any time, for any reason. You need to be able to trust that when you withdraw consent, that will be honoured by your partner. If you can’t do that, ask yourself if you should be having sex with them.
Withdrawing consent is not usually withdrawal from the relationship. Saying stop, or being told stop, does not mean you don’t care about each other. It doesn’t necessarily mean that either of you has done anything wrong. What it means is that something’s not working right then and there – and the best thing you can do is work together to figure it out. It is perfectly possible to care about each other a great deal and have a failing sex life. (I would know.)
There is no safe sex, only safe people. There is nothing magical about the words “no” or “stop” that means sex will cease when you say them. It is all down to the person you’re having sex with. You need to know you can trust that person. How to know if someone is trustworthy is a massive question and beyond the scope of this post. But if they don’t respect your ‘no’ in small things, they’re not likely to respect it in big things.
There are no safe words, only safe people. Some people suggest having a code-word to stop sex and the most common of these is “red”. They’re referred to as “safewords” but they don’t keep you safe and in nearly all circumstances there are better substitutes. Even when safewords have a use, it is only as one safety measure amongst others. If you’re wondering why someone would ever bother with safewords – apologies – I don’t have time to go into it now. The point I want to be clear on is this: don’t believe that someone understands or honours consent just because they know about the idea of safewords. Also, see next point.
You don’t have to wait for your partner to withdraw consent. You should be remaining alert for any signals that suggest your partner isn’t enjoying themselves the way they expected. If they stop sending signals, or if they send you signals (words or otherwise) that you don’t understand, get active consent before you carry on. If you check in with them and they don’t give you a clear response, stop. The only time when you might not wait for your partner to withdraw consent is if they have told you very clearly and explicitly to keep on going through pre-named and specific signals that would otherwise suggest they might want to stop. But even then…
You have the right to withdraw consent. Sex is about you growing in relationship by playing with someone else. When it stops being fun, when you’re concerned for your partner, when it starts to be unexpectedly uncomfortable for you, even when you simply change your mind, you have the right to withdraw consent. Yes, you do. Even if you’ve committed in principle to having sex with someone. Sex is play – and play can’t happen when you’re thinking you don’t want to play.
Your partner has the right to withdraw consent – even when they’re letting you down. Sometimes people give consent when maybe they could have known it wasn’t a good idea. Keeping on going won’t fix it. And it is probably better for you to know that you stopped when you could, then carry on thinking you’re doing one thing, only to be told later it was something else. So, let them know that you’re someone who will allow them to admit a mistake as soon as they know they’ve made it.
Your partner has the right to withdraw consent – even when they’ve violated yours. Being deliberately drawn in and then pushed away is a form of abuse and a consent violation. People who do this might try to justify themselves or they might not, but if your partner does that to you, then the best thing to do is walk away. Give them nothing, nothing, that they could use as leverage over you. Because manipulative people do that and it’s not what you need on top of what they’ve just done.
Five myths that say you can’t withdraw consent
When sex is considered special, or tricky, or something you don’t get time for often, it’s easy to feel performance pressure. This can lead to rationalisations which say you shouldn’t withdraw consent.
“But I made a commitment…” You gave consent thinking you would enjoy it or at the very least be comfortable with it, thinking it would help you grow in relationship. But now you’re not sure. There could be a million and one different reasons for that. Something unexpected is probably going on. You need space to make sense of it. That won’t happen mid-sex. So stop. Really, just stop.
“But I don’t want to let my partner down…” Your partner did not consent to sharing sex that you didn’t want. If you want the sex to stop and you stay silent, you are putting your partner in a situation that they didn’t consent to. Speak up.
“But I don’t want to look stupid…” Like I said earlier, there is no room for ego in consent. No one likes finding out they’ve made a mistake, but everyone makes them. Do not let your pride stop you from calling things to a halt.
“But I don’t want my partner to think I was stringing them along…” If your partner thinks you’re the kind of person who’d withdraw consent just for kicks, then you have a bigger relationship problem. And if you’re nervous that they might think of you along those lines, then discuss your concerns before you have sex.
“But I’m not sure I want the sex to stop…” Then put things on pause. Communicate what’s happening and see if you and your partner can deal with it together. You can continue with sex if you want to, but don’t feel pressured to resume what you were doing before.
What to do when your partner withdraws consent
If consent is withdrawn, stop gently. You don’t need to be dramatic. You don’t need to lurch away from your partner as if another second of touching them will kill them. You just need to slow down and pull away gently. Think about whether you or your partner could do with a glass of water, or some food, or a hot water bottle.
Affirm your partner’s choice. There is a time for discussing your feelings – this is not it. Focus on them. Don’t guilt them. Don’t get defensive. Reassure them. If they’re up for it, encourage questions to help them and you make sense of what happened. It’s OK for that to take a while.
If you see a pattern emerging, consider professional help. If you or your partner keeps consenting and then keeps withdrawing their consent, something bigger is going wrong. There is no shame in looking for outside help and, in my experience, there is no help like professional help.
And… I think that’s it.
If you’ve made it this far – thank you! I hope it’s helpful to you in your journeys of both understanding consent and explaining it to others.
If you found this post valuable, please take a few minutes to browse my blog, Facebook page or Twitter account – because there is more where this came from! I’d also love to hear from you – what interests you about sexuality and consent, and any questions or stories you have.
I am on a mission to transform attitudes towards sex – but it’s not something I can do alone.
Some links to some of my other writing on related topics you might find useful:
- The key to lifelong sex: get the right advice– about sex and what makes for good sex
- An open letter to the evangelical couple considering sex therapy – reflecting on my husband’s and my experiences
- On the receiving end of sex – why it’s not just about giving– looking at why it’s OK to be passive during sex
- What’s bad about “the worst” six slaps in Fifty Shades of Grey?– explaining how this is a long list of consent failures
- Beast vs Christian Grey: The dark art of grooming– looking at the pattern of tactics Christian uses to hook Ana.
- But if I have not consent – (a poem inspired by 1 Corinthians 13:1-8) – a short poem that summarises this post.